Friday, April 2, 2010

Rules were made to be broken???

By Lonnie Cruse

Lately I've been reading a collection of Mary Roberts Rinehart's books on my Kindle, and I'm enjoying the variety. I love her style, her humor, her characters, her . . . well, just about her everything. However, when reading her work, I can't help noticing how she wrote things back then that might earn her a huge smack-down from today's writers and critiquers. Like the "had I but known" syndrome. She uses it in nearly every chapter, yet today it's a "no no." Or so I'm told.

Which got me wondering, just WHEN did these rules came into play? Obviously not in Rinehart's day, or she wouldn't have been so popular. Would she?

As readers, we don't seem to care much about the "rules of writing" so long as the story is good and keeps us turning the pages to see what happens next. As writers, when we join critique groups or other writers' groups, we are told what works today and what does not. What the "rules of writing" are. And if we cross that line, somebody usually shoves us back across it with a stern warning. "No publisher will buy it if you write stuff like that! No one will read it if you put that in your book!" What am I talking about? Stuff like prologues, had-I-but-knowns, etc. And yet, modern-day writers sometimes break those rules, too, and get away with it.

So I'm wondering if it isn't at least somewhat up to the reader's taste? Rules are made, rules are broken, in writing. Readers notice and quit reading, or they don't notice/don't know the rules/don't even care, because the writing is so good, and they keep on reading. Rinehart's writing is that good for me.

Are you, as a reader, aware of the rules of writing? If you are, how do they affect you when reading? Do you toss the book or stick with it? And as a writer, how much attention do you pay to the "rules of writing?" A lot? A little? Not at all? And how does it affect you in getting published? Writerly minds wanna know.

As always, thanks for stopping by! Oh, and by the way, what ARE you currently reading? Modern day? Vintage? Both? Neither?

I'm also reading Donna Andrews' SWAN FOR THE MONEY. That woman could break every rule in the book and I'd still read her. I do have to be careful not to fall out of bed once I start laughing. Sigh.


Paul Lamb said...

Ah, the so-called "rules of writing." The last refuge of the timid writer. The problem is that creative writing is so fraught with doubt and confusion and second guessing that many writers will become devotees of "the rules" simply to remove some doubt. But the fact is that we don't think in perfect grammar. We don't speak in perfect grammar. And I (nor do I suspect I am alone in this) do not read for perfect grammar. I certainly don't pause in my reading to marvel at how someone has properly punctuated a subordinate clause or carefully avoided a split infinitive (which is not ungrammatical, by the way). I will take note when a sentence fragment adds punch to an expression or when a chopped up narrative parallels the protagonist's state of mind. If I was frustrated every time I encountered a violation of the "rules" I would find myself with a pretty short shelf of reading selections. A careful reading of just about every literary or popular novel will show dozens of broken rules. The goal is communication!

Beyond understanding basic grammar, which you can pretty much get from reading good writing, a creative writer does herself a disservice by knowing the "rules" of grammar and writing too well. They are velvet cages. They limit expression. It's bunk to say one must know the rules before one dares break them. Better never to be fettered by them. (Most of the folk who assert the importance of the "rules" seem to know only their favorites. Ask them about a squinting modifier, for example, and they seem to sputter.) If you read good writing, you will develop an intuitive sense of what works. Creative writers should spend more time studying the rules of rhetoric rather than the rules of writing.

The "rules" are useful for teaching high school students how to write term papers. They are useful for journalists who must write to a common denominator. But we are creative writers. We have a license to break the rules. We have the job of inventing the language.

(And what's the concern about prologues? I see them all the time. Epilogues too. If they're essential to telling the story, who could object to them other than maybe a publisher who is trying to save some ink?)

Deadly Letters GTA said...

It's often the writers who carefully and knowingly break the rules who have a huge success!

Lonnie Cruse said...

Thanks for you comments, I agree with both of you! And thanks for stopping by!

signlady217 said...

I've read all of Donna Andrew's Meg Langslow series. And you're right about trying not to fall on the floor laughing, especially at the antics of Meg's crazy family. (So glad it's not mine!)

I'm basically aware of the "rules" but mostly I just care if the book is boring for me, since everyone's taste is not the same.

Susan said...

I'm so glad you like Mary Roberts Rinehart - I thought I was the only person left who still read her.

Personally I have no quarrel with 'had I but known' - who among us doesn't have both regrets and 20-20 hindsight?

One thing I like about MRR is the leisurely pace, so we can absorb the location, get to know the characters in a natural way - and she has none of the rush-rush pace and dire cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that seem tiresomely obligatory in modern fiction.